Energy and net-zero buildings: The burning question

John Abraham, Chief Operating Officer, Industrial, Water & Energy UK, Ireland & Nordics – Veolia, explores how buildings can redefine their relationship and reliance on carbon intensive energy to help organisations push toward their net-zero goals.

Energy and net-zero buildings: The burning question

Heat pumps

Our modern world needs energy to power every facet of human activity. With the damaging impacts of climate change becoming ever more obvious across the globe, everyone is facing a wake-up call to break away from the carbon-intensive practices of the past. The burning question is how do we achieve it?

We all know that historically energy supply and use has been delivered at a massive carbon cost to our planet and to counter climate change, the world needs to transform how we generate the energy supplies that are vital to businesses, the public sector, and communities, with carbon cutting being the key factor.

In the public sector, NHS hospitals have already shown what can be achieved. Working through the Government’s Public Sector Decarbonisation Scheme, PSDS, backed by dedicated financing, many hospitals are upgrading and gaining the benefits from the latest low and zero-carbon technologies, with upgrades being paid back through energy cost savings, to deliver long-term energy cost reductions. These measures have seen increasing use of heat pumps, solar panels, biomass, battery energy storage, de-steaming, hydrogen-ready combustion plants, intelligent control systems and high-efficiency insulation. But more funding will be needed to maximise this success across the public sector estate and tackle the carbon footprint across education and civic buildings.

Access to affordable, reliable, and sustainable energy has a direct impact on modern life, and is linked to fuel poverty and carbon emissions. With heating across the domestic, commercial and public sector buildings accounting for nearly half of the energy used in the UK, there is much debate about the most sustainable technologies to avoid energy waste and to cut carbon emissions and fuel costs.

A key solution is the use of heat networks, a well-established technology across the world, but this has suffered in the UK due to the legacy of poorly implemented inefficient schemes.  However the emphasis has dramatically changed and in recent years the Government, developers and housing associations have started to recognise heat networks are a reliable and affordable way of delivering heating. Key to this is developer and investor confidence, and a greater understanding of the technologies, efficiencies and performance to help overcome negative perceptions.

In the UK heat networks currently supply around 447,000 homes and other buildings across networks estimated at 1,800km, more than double the figure in 2013. But this is small in comparison to the use of this technology across the world, for example, Veolia alone now manages 600 schemes covering 7,000km of pipe networks and serving millions of people.

The advantages are obvious. These systems are able to use a wide range of heat sources including energy from waste, biomass and electricity generation. By supplying heat from a central source, through insulated pipes to connected buildings, this type of energy delivery effectively future proofs heat delivery as systems can potentially make use of new and emerging technologies as the central energy source, without having to change the infrastructure and connections to thousands of buildings.

But there is also an expanding number of opportunities to harness waste heat from industrial processes, sewer networks,and geothermal applications. This may sound like imagineering but this type of innovation is already happening on a commercial basis.

A secure and reliable zero-carbon electricity supply is also critical, and will have a role in delivering zero-carbon heat to the UK. In the race to zero carbon this supply has undergone dramatic transformation from coal and gas power station-based fossil generators, to wind, solar, biomass, biogas and energy recovery. Importantly there are now many more opportunities to further decarbonize the electricity supply including increased use of biogas derived from harnessing the millions of tonnes of organic matter available, making use of low-value land for solar arrays, and the production of green hydrogen.

As engineers Veolia looks to the future by creating, delivering and supporting the energy solutions developed by our global teams and working in partnership with our customers, to bring the low carbon goal nearer. But we have to be pragmatic and the commercial realities mean that the route to net zero is likely to be a two stage investment programme, with viable carbon reducing technologies installed now, then replaced with emerging technologies in 15-20 years as these become commercially viable. Importantly all these changes need support through clear policies from central government, and easily accessible sources of funding to make these changes happen.

This is a pivotal moment. We live in a time when environmental concerns have never been so instantly visible, or their consequences so real to everyone, and we can now make a real and lasting difference for the future of the planet.

Comments (1)

  1. Mark Boulton says:

    I still cannot believe UK Gov continues to ignore the potential of PV in their building regs. In 2014 when we were building an eco house net zero energy was the target by 2016. We splashed out to put solar PV on our adjacent barn costing £28000. Everyone thought we were crazy. Ten years later we have repaid the costs twice over, had free electricity for 6 month or more every year and will be paid for another ten years Up to 4000 house are going up near here and not one solar roof! Crazy.

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